Jonathan Yeo: Artist reflects on painting Cara Delevingne and Taron Egerton

Two portraits of model Cara Delevingne
Image caption,Yeo recalls painting a playful Cara Delevingne, who wanted to try on costumes and props from his studio as she was sitting

By Steven McIntosh

Entertainment reporter

Artist Jonathan Yeo is one of the UK’s best-known portrait painters – an art form, he argues, which is as important as ever in an era where tens of millions of selfies are captured every day.

Yeo is best known for his portraits of figures from the world of entertainment, royalty, politics and activism – among them Sir David Attenborough, Idris Elba, Nicole Kidman, Malala Yousafzai, Helena Bonham Carter and Sienna Miller.

His other subjects include former US president George W Bush and former prime minister Sir Tony Blair, as well as the former Duchess of Cornwall, now Queen Camilla, and the late Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Phillip.

A painted portrait, Yeo says, has the ability to encapsulate more aspects of a sitter’s personality than a regular photograph.

“A photo is a frozen moment,” Yeo tells BBC News. “What you get when you’re painting a portrait is a bit of time elapsing. When you’re painting a picture, you’re working on it one part at a different time, than another. So instead of a static image, you’ve got lots of different moments captured.

“Your relationship with the subject evolves as you get to know them,” he continues. “You see them on different days, and people behave differently, they look different on different days, so you can bring different elements of their personality, mixed up in an interesting way. And you’re seeing them with two eyes rather than with a camera, which sees them with one.”

Jonathan Yeo
Image caption,Yeo says his aim with portraits is to get across the “unvarnished truth” of the sitter

Yeo’s entry to the world of portraits was unconventional. “I’ve been doing portraits for nearly 30 years now,” he explains, “but I never went to art school and so I never had any formal training.”

Instead, the artist developed his own techniques and style. “Portraits are not easy, and it was quite good training because it forced me to figure out how to do it.”

His self-taught methods led to a successful career, including a show dedicated to Yeo’s work at the National Portrait Gallery (NPG) and a host of exhibitions in museums around the world.

“Yeo, the closest we have to a latter-day society portraitist in the spirit of Joshua Reynolds, paints flattering portraits with an old-fashioned Modernist edge,” said Fisun Guner of the Arts Desk in his review of Yeo’s NPG show.

The artist is now set to put his decades of experience into teaching. Yeo has recorded a series of lessons for BBC Maestro – a commercial service funded by subscriptions where experts share their skills.

Many of Yeo’s portraits are of high-profile figures, something which, he says, can be both a blessing and a curse.

“In some ways, if people are well known, they’re a bit more used to being scrutinised and having their photograph taken,” he notes. “Which can be an advantage, because they’re not as awkward at first, but it might also be that you have to scratch a bit harder to remove the public face.”

Here is a selection of some of the big names Yeo has painted:

Cara Delevingne

Cara Delevingne by Jonathan Yeo

In the mid 2010s, Cara Delevingne’s star was still on the rise. As a model, she dominated fashion pages, but she was also forging a career as an actress and author.

Yeo recalls the model, now 31, wanted to have fun and play around more than many of his other sitters – something which ultimately benefitted the resulting portraits he produced in 2015.

“She would come in and and she didn’t like to sit still,” he recalls. “But she did tend to look around, and we had a whole load of things left over from a party, some glasses and goggles, and she started putting all these things on and playing around.

“So I ended up doing several pictures of her for a museum in Denmark where she was in a different performance mode in each one.

He adds: “My favourite was when she put this Groucho Marks disguise on [pictured top]. So you’ve got this supermodel who’s generally paid quite a lot of money to have her picture taken, and you could barely see that it’s her because of these eyebrows.”

Taron Egerton

Taron Egerton as Elton John, portrait by Jonathan Yeo

Of the actors he has painted, one that particularly sticks in Yeo’s mind is Taron Egerton – whom he captured while he was portraying Sir Elton John in the 2019 biopic Rocketman.

“I thought I’d do something that was more about that idea of elusiveness, and the point where the actor stops and the character starts,” he says.

“But also, he was portraying someone we know in the real world, Elton John, who’s also got the performance Elton and the private Elton.

“So I thought it was kind of fun to have this picture of him in character in one of the outfits from the movie, but you’ve hopefully got this sense of a moving target of where the identity is.”

Yeo recalls another actor he got on well with during sitting – but who ended up accidentally missing his next show.

“Kristen Scott Thomas was great and said she was going to come to my exhibition in Denmark,” he recalls. “She showed up a week early, she had got the dates wrong. She ended up helping me hang the exhibition, but missed the opening!”

Jonathan Ive

Jonathan Ive portrait by Jonathan Yeo

One of Yeo’s portraits which attracted the most attention was that of Jonathan Ive, who was chief design officer of Apple at the time (2018).

Ive played a key role in developing the look of the iPod, iPhone, iPad and MacBook.

“I was interested in this idea he mentioned one day that he’d always been fascinated by self-portraiture as a kid, and had written his thesis on it,” Yeo says.

“So I loved that – this guy had been partially responsible for putting cameras on the iPhone and basically indirectly was responsible for billions of selfies, more than had ever been made when he wrote his thesis.

“I thought that link was lovely, so in the picture he was sort of making a selfie but we flipped it around a bit.”

Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry portrait by Jonathan Yeo

One artist painting another artist is surely an intimidating proposition. “It’s a bit more stressful,” Yeo acknowledges.

He highlights Grayson Perry, an artist who is also well known for dressing as a woman, as an example.

“[Perry] used to come and sit on Wednesdays, that was his day for being [alter-ego] Claire. So I said ‘I don’t mind what you wear, but it would be helpful if you wore the same thing’.

“And of course he totally ignored that,” Yeo laughs, “and one day would come in as a Victorian schoolgirl, another day as a power-dressed 80s businesswoman with bouffant hair.

“I don’t know if it was deliberate and he was playing with me. I could’ve carried on doing that one for years, I always learn so much from him.”

Tony Blair

Tony Blair portrait by Jonathan Yeo

At the time Yeo painted Sir Tony, the former prime minister happened to be wearing a poppy at the time of his sittings as it was close to Remembrance Day. The piercing red of of the poppy was noticeable against Sir Tony’s grey suit.

Yeo recalls Sir Tony as an impressive communicator – something he was able to observe on the campaign trail.

“To some extent, I would group politicians with actors because they’re often quite sophisticated performers,” Yeo says. “Tony Blair was very impressive and was good at projecting what he wanted to project, but he used his body language, the way he said things, to suit the purpose.

“I followed some politicians around on an election campaign a long time ago, and you’d see them in different situations, and he would subtly adapt to each situation almost like a mimic would do, taking on the body language and other affectations.”

Jonathan Yeo: Portrait Painting is released on the BBC Maestro platform on 24 January.

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